ORLANDO, Fla. -- As manufacturing industries go digital, products that were once generated via a set of build plans are now created in digital files that can be exported anywhere in the world.
When 3D printing is added to that equation, products are no longer produced in anticipation of orders, but on demand, as needed.
There are, however, existing cultural industry biases -- engineers and designers who are entrenched in conventional manufacturing methods -- that limit the adoption of 3D printing, stifling its full potential.
"What we need in our design organizations is someone who doesn't have those cultural biases [and who says] when we go to design a new part for our spacecraft or rocket engine..., how do we build this with new technology?" said John Vickers, principal technologist for NASA's space technology mission directorate.
Vickers was part of a digital manufacturing panel today at the RAPID Printing and Additive Manufacturing Conference here.
He explained that a liquid rocket engine produced by NASA can cost tens of millions of dollars to build with conventional manufacturing methods; a single component can include more than 300 parts and take from six months to a year to create.
With 3D printing, in some cases, a rocket engine component can be reduced to a half dozen parts and require only three months to build, Vickers said.
"Our aerospace and space products really cost too much and take too long today," Vickers said. "We're really interested in affordability and performance. We like to say we're interested in half the weight, at half the cost, at twice the speed."
In 2014, NASA delivered a 3D printer to the International Space Station for research and development. A month ago, it delivered a second one that will be used to make replacement parts for the space station.
"We're on a long-term journey to Mars at NASA. So our goal for in-space manufacturing...is to not have to take all the supplies with us," Vickers said. "So in-space fabrication and repair is a term we use."
Just as plans for creating parts can be transmitted to spacecraft, digital manufacturing allows stereolithography design (stl) files to be transmitted anywhere in the world.
As 3D printing continues to infiltrate manufacturing, not only will parts be transformed into just-in-time production runs, but sensors embedded in those parts will be able to provide feedback during real-world use to improve quality in the build process.
Dean Bartels, chief manufacturing officer at the Digital Manufacturing & Design Innovation Institute (DMDII), believes an issue facing 3D printing adoption is the lack of education for engineers and designers.
DMDII is a federally-funded research and development organization of UI LABS that focuses on helping manufacturers deploy digital technology to improve processes. DMDII was the first organization created through the Revitalize American Manufacturing Innovation (RAMI) Act of 2014.
Bartels sees several emerging trends connected to digital manufacturing, including the use of advanced analytics to determine whether a product or part can be more efficiently produced with additive manufacturing (3D printing) or through conventional methods.
"How strong has it to be? How light has it to be? How cost effective does it have to be so when you're a designer trying to decide the best way to make the product, he can decide those things," Bartels said. "It's an emerging area. I don't think anyone has a firm answer now on how to do it right now."
Additionally, intelligent machining, where every machine tool is connected via the Internet, could someday enable data to be streamed to analytics engines in the cloud to determine more efficient ways of manufacturing products.
For example, General Electric tracks the engines it makes not only on the production line, but also as they're in use by customers to measure ongoing performance -- data that can be used to boost quality, Bartels said.
Stephen Nigro, president of HP 3D printing, said the cloud will be critical to advancing 3D printing technologies since no single company will be able to come up with all the answers. Inter-industry collaboration will be necessary.
HP today began taking reservations for its new HP Jet Fusion printer line, which it said will rival traditional manufacturing by enabling product runs of greater than 50,000 parts for half the cost of other 3D printing methods and 10 times faster.
HP's Jet Fusion printers are also expected to print electronics in parts that will transmit data about their performance as well as unique identifiers that will enable parts to be tracked, Nigro said.
HP, which considers its 3D printer line an open platform, is collaborating with Arkema, BASF, Evonic Industries and Lehmann & Voss & Co. on materials its Jet Fusion printers will be able to use in the future. It is also working with Siemens to incorporate its Product Lifecycle Management software as a tool and with Autodesk and Materialise on developing the 3D printer software for the Jet Fusion line.
Nigro said "the cloud" will be key to not only digital manufacturing but 3D printing in that it will offer cheap compute and data storage services that can drive advances in additive manufacturing.
"Our devices will be cloud connected," Nigro said. "We won't be able to see what people are printing, but will be able to get information back to refine our systems."
"We're poorly connected and poorly interoperable," Vickers said. "Everyone is producing digital information..., but they're not interconnected and interoperable. We have digital devices and analog thinking."
With the cloud comes cybersecurity concerns
Bartels cautioned that with the cloud comes cybersecurity issues. While the cloud helps connect disparate 3D printing and traditional manufacturing systems to enable greater analytics, it also opens the industry up to malicious attacks or IP theft.
The U.S. government needs to make cybersecurity in manufacturing its next top priority under the RAMI Act, Bartels said.
NASA's Vickers agreed, saying gone are the days when product plans were stamped "secret" and stashed away in a safe. At the same time, he worries that too much sensitivity to security will stifle advances.
"Two weeks ago, we explained to our agents what we were doing with digital manufacturing. My request to them was try not to slow us down too much with too much regulation," Vickers said.